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How Political Affiliation Bias Heightens Workplace Tensions

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A growing number of workers are feeling the effects of political affiliation bias and would benefit from greater inclusiveness, according to a recent Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Politics at Work Study.

The percentage of U.S. workers who say they’ve experienced political affiliation bias has risen 12 percentage points in the past three years.

Almost a quarter of the 504 workers surveyed in late August (24 percent) say they have personally experienced differential treatment, either positive or negative, because of their political views, compared with 12 percent of U.S workers in 2019.

“Unfortunately, we’ve seen a real decline in civility when people express their opinions and beliefs, and it’s a barrier to success for employers and their employees,” says SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP. “This trend has been fueled by the relative anonymity of social media, and it has spilled into our communities and our workplaces. In today’s climate, people are saying, ‘I can't work with you if you don't share my views.’ It’s a problem HR professionals and business leaders cannot ignore. I am hopeful SHRM’s research will help organizations build constructive dialogue in the workplace—for the good of employees, the bottom line, and society at large."

Nearly half of U.S. workers (45 percent) have experienced political disagreements in the workplace. Companies can lean on their diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies to help manage these conflicts.

“Differences in political viewpoint is indeed a diversity issue,” says Jonathan Segal, an attorney with Duane Morris in Philadelphia and New York City. “It is but one example of diversity in thought. It is neither possible nor desirable to attempt to prohibit any political workplace discussions. An attempt by management to do so may align those who disagree on almost every political issue to agree on one thing: The employer is overreaching.”

Twenty-six percent of U.S. workers engage in political discussions with their colleagues. Those who work fully in person are more likely to engage in political discussions with their coworkers (30 percent) than hybrid workers (24 percent) and fully remote workers (19 percent).

Christine Walters, J.D., SHRM-SCP, an independent consultant with FiveL Co. in Westminster, Maryland, has a different perspective.

“I might even caution employers to suggest employees respectfully refrain from those conversations—just as we might discourage proselytizing in the workplace,” she says. “If an employee chooses, however, to ignore the employer's suggestion and proceeds to disclose his or her political affiliation or opinion, then the employer should demand a respectful and civil response, discourage engaging in further discourse, and move on.”

Various Views on Differing Political Perspectives

Two-thirds of U.S. workers (66 percent) say the employees in their organizations are inclusive of differing political perspectives among other employees.

Moderate (73 percent) and liberal workers (70 percent) are more likely than conservative workers (60 percent) to say the employees in their organizations are inclusive of differing political perspectives among other employees.

Interestingly, though in-person workers say they speak with colleagues about political issues more frequently than remote or hybrid workers, only 57 percent of fully in-person workers say their organizations are inclusive of differing political perspectives among employees, compared with fully remote workers and hybrid workers (both 83 percent).

“There is probably more political diversity in your workplace than you think,” Segal says. “There tends to be ‘groupspeak,’ where those with less common views simply don’t speak. The appearance of an almost universally held view is not the reality, but groupspeak makes it more likely that those with different views will simply hide their views. This results in a lack of engagement and actual estrangement. Indeed, it may result in views not being expressed that should be heard for leaders to respond to societal issues with workplace implications.”

Although most U.S. workers report that their organizations are inclusive of differing political perspectives among employees, some supervisors report that they would be hesitant to hire or promote people with certain political beliefs.

Supervisors are more likely to be hesitant to hire a job applicant who disclosed that they had extremely conservative beliefs (30 percent) than an applicant who disclosed that they had extremely liberal beliefs (20 percent). Approximately one in five supervisors would be hesitant to promote an employee who disclosed that they had extremely conservative (18 percent) or extremely liberal beliefs (21 percent).

More Workplace Guidelines Needed

Only 8 percent of organizations have communicated guidelines to employees around political discussions at work leading up to the 2022 U.S. midterm elections, according to a separate survey of 1,525 HR professionals, conducted from 25 August to 11 September 2022.

“Any antibullying or harassment policy could be amended to include the phrase, ‘Although we encourage an open dialogue as to matters of national significance, when it comes to politics, employees must conduct discussions respectfully and without threatening or disruptive tone in the workplace,’” says Steven Loewengart, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Columbus, Ohio.

“Any such policy should make clear it is not intended to prevent employees from discussing their working conditions or otherwise engaging in protected activity,” says John Porta, an attorney with Jackson Lewis in New York City. “Employers should train their management staff on how to defuse situations if the communications become emotional or agitated.”

Potential Legal Issue

Political viewpoint is not only a diversity issue, but also a potential legal issue, Segal says.

Jennifer Abruzzo, the National Labor Relations Board general counsel, has said that conversations about political issues may be protected under the National Labor Relations Act as concerted activity to the extent that they relate to workplaces issues.

"This would include, for example, issues involving pay equity, minimum wage, immigration, [and] healthcare coverage for abortion," Segal says.

In addition, some jurisdictions—such as California, New York, and the District of Columbia—have laws that prohibit discrimination based on political affiliation

Allen Smith, J.D., manager of workplace law content, has worked at SHRM since 2005. For the previous 11 years, he was a writer and editor at Thompson Publishing Group, editing the ADA Compliance Guide and The Leave & Disability Coordination Handbook and writing articles for their accompanying newsletters. He earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina School of Law and undergraduate bachelor’s degree in history from Davidson College cum laude.

© 2022 SHRM. This article is reprinted from with permission from SHRM. All rights reserved.